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Gaunce brothers find ties that bind

Brendan Gaunce is no stranger to the Hershey Centre, the home of the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.

During last season’s Ontario Hockey League playoffs he spent many nights sitting in the stands with his family, cheering and watching his older brother, Cameron, captain the Majors to the Eastern Conference final.

On Thursday night Brendan will be back at Hershey Centre. This time he won’t be a spectator. Instead, the rookie forward will be trying his best to help his Belleville Bulls – the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed – knock off his brother’s former club. That’s a tall order, given the Majors were the No. 1 team in the OHL during the regular season and finished 55 points higher than the Bulls.

A David-Goliath scenario, to say the least, and lots to worry about for Brendan and his teammates. But it could be worse for the younger Gaunce, who won’t have to face Cameron, a Colorado Avalanche second-round draft pick who is finishing his rookie season as a pro with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League.

“He’s a pretty dirty player,” the forward says matter-of-factly, referring to the tenacity and mean streak his older brother possesses on the ice. “But that’s coming from the aspect of being a brother and playing with him in front of our house in hockey and in our basement.”

Growing up, the site of their sometimes-raucous hockey showdowns was not the local arena, but rather a suburban tree-lined crescent in Markham, Ont. The games would be played day and night, through heat waves and snowstorms with kids of all ages – some who didn’t even live in the area – gathering to play a little five-on-five if they had the numbers. Or fewer if they didn’t.

And it was there, in front of their house situated very nicely in the curve of the crescent, that their mother, Julie, would come out to find the freshest dent or even worse, broken side mirror, on her red minivan.

The older kids enforced the rules, which was simple because there was only one.

No crying allowed.

Brendan would be found tagging along with Cameron, who had graduated into one of the street’s elder statesmen. But as Brendan soon learned, hanging with the older crowd came at a heavy price.

“All the others guys were a lot older than me so they’d put me in net,” says Brendan. “I never had a mask, so I’m pretty sure that toughened me up a little bit.”

Not that there was much coddling or sympathy inside the house for crying kids either. Julie grew up playing field hockey and her husband, Stephen, was a football player when the two Saint John, N.B., natives met while attending Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“We weren’t too patient with whiny kids unless they were really hurt,” says Julie of her two boys and daughter Allyson, 24, who was also active in sports.

“Whenever I’d get a bruise she’d kind of mock it, and say, ‘Please. Try playing field hockey with a ball and stick without any pads,’ ” adds Cameron.

The brothers play different positions – Cameron is a defenceman and Brendan a centre – and their personalities are equally different. One of the things they share though is that toughness. According to mom, her older son was the type of kid where if you sat him down with a toy, he’d happily play quietly by himself. Brendan, despite being very shy, was type who always had to be active and was more rambunctious than Cameron.

“I think Cameron is mentally tougher,” says Julie, a stay-at-home mom. “Things come a little easier for Brendan.”

As kids the youngest Gaunce’s greatest tormentor was not his brother, but a bright green tennis ball wielded by former Kitchener Rangers forward Jesse Boucher, who didn’t live on the street but was best friends with the Gaunces’ next-door neighbour. The mere thought of Boucher - 11 years Brendan’s senior – winding up is still enough to make the now 16-year-old cringe.

“I’d probably still be scared if I saw him out on the street,” says Brendan earnestly.

In typical brotherly fashion, Cameron is quick to dispute his younger sibling’s version of events in what he believes is a bit of revisionist history.

“If that’s how he remembers it,” says the older Gaunce with a laugh. “He would go in net sometimes. But he hated it more than anything.”

And while they might disagree on who got the short side of the net growing up, there’s no disputing the close relationship the two brothers enjoy. They talk to each other just about every day even now with Cameron earning a living with the Monsters.

“He’s definitely been helping me out all year,” says Brendan of his older brother’s advice. “It’s more mentally. With all the ups and downs during the year, you’re always going to have that. How you have to come mentally prepared to the rink every day to get better and improve as a team.”

The guidance has helped. In his first junior season away from home, the hulking six-foot-two, 205-pound forward has scored 11 goals and 25 assists in 65 regular-season games with a young Bulls team that clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. He was the second overall pick in the 2010 OHL priority selection after being the highest scoring minor midget player in Ontario with 55 goals and 93 assists in 86 games for his hometown Markham Waxers. Brendan, not surprisingly, hasn’t shown the same offensive prowess in his first season of major junior hockey. Cameron is quick to come to his brother’s defence, suggesting folks need to look beyond the numbers.

“People might be expecting more from him (offensively), but what they don’t see is how well he plays in his own zone and how he backchecks and does on faceoffs,” says Cameron. “He’s playing a complete game for a 16-year-old, and I think I might be biased, but for him to have that kind of responsibility in his own zone really speaks to that point.

“I still say it; I think he’s a better player than I am.”

High praise indeed since Cameron was selected in the second round of the 2008 NHL draft – 50th overall – by the Avalanche with three standout seasons in Mississauga accumulating 141 career points and a plus-56 in 185 OHL games. After spending 54 games in the AHL, he was called up to make his NHL debut on Feb. 12 against the Nashville Predators.

His next game was against the Calgary Flames, where he found himself being caught up in the excitement of realizing his childhood dream.

“A couple times I was out there with Jarome Iginla or Robyn Regehr and I think I might have been a bit star struck once when I was on the ice and that might have cost us a goal,” says Cameron.

The pro experience is a far cry from his life with the Majors. In Mississauga he was rock solid on the Majors’ blue line and was a two-time finalist as the OHL’s top defenceman. That type of success didn’t translate into the kind of self-confidence that crosses over into cocky territory. At last fall’s NHL training camp with Colorado, a story circulated that Cameron – paired with Adam Foote – would apologize to the veteran each time he made an errant pass. He is that congenial.

During his callup with the Avs Cameron enjoyed a chuckle when asked how he was coping with the rock-star life of an NHLer.

“I don’t even consider myself an NHL player,” the defenceman says, laughing over the phone. “I don’t think seven games makes a career. I’m just a guy playing in the NHL, that’s all I consider it.”

Told of his comments, his mom, too, laughed: “That’s something he would say. That’s Cameron.”

Cameron was eventually sent back Lake Erie after seven NHL games, but talking to Brendan – even briefly – about his brother’s success puts an immediate smile on his face.

“I’m really happy for him,” he says.

And although they are separated by miles and different schedules in different leagues, the Gaunce brothers are still never far apart. They are different, says the ultimate expert, their mom. But, Julie’s quick to add, they share that one trait many parents would suggest applies to their children, too.

“They both have big mouths.”

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